September 18, 2012
Is Pharma a Four-Letter Word?
The first meeting of the 2012-2013 season featured guest speaker André Picard, a health reporter and columnist at the The Globe and Mail, an author of three books and a six-time finalist for the National Newspaper Awards. The evening kicked off with a survey of the audience asking if they felt the media provided fair coverage of the pharma industry. Based on the results of the survey, André stated that 79% of respondents felt that the media was a 4-letter word! During his presentation, he set out to change this statistic.
André began by asking, “Why do people love to hate pharma companies but love their products?” The answer, he felt, was that the industry is like the following Irish proverb: “When I’m right, no one remembers and when I’m wrong, no one forgets.” It is human nature to talk about negative things, and media coverage of the pharma industry is no different. Major drug crises within the industry receive significant media attention, but the positive stories do not receive the same coverage.
Another factor fuelling the negative perception of the pharma industry is the overall perception in policy circles that Canada has a “drug problem”. There has been an unrelenting increase in the consumption of prescription drugs over the last three decades. Prescription drugs account for $27 billion each year, and those costs have increased 10-fold since 1986. Policy makers see this spending as a political crisis, because the costs keep going up and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. However, the positive side to this is that drug costs have led to amazing scientific discoveries. Drug development over that same time period have allowed us to treat more people with better medications, thereby reducing hospital expenditures and mortality rates. Spending money on drugs and their development is a good investment, but policy makers don’t always see it this way.
Drug costs are increasing due to the soaring number of people taking them for chronic illnesses. In fact, Canadians are the second biggest consumer of drugs after the US. However, the main issue for the future is the effectiveness and efficiency of our drug use. Many people are taking drugs that aren’t working well for them or that are unnecessary. This overuse among seniors is of particular concern for policy makers, as these patients are covered by public plans. One of the ways that the pharma industry can help with this issue is by helping patients, and seniors in particular, understand and make sense of their medications. We need to have basic communication with patients to help them help themselves.
André pointed out that the pharma industry does a good job of trying to educate patients. The industry has developed and rolled out many great education initiatives, and he felt that the pharma industry does not always get the credit for them that it deserves. One of the reasons for this is that the public often has the perception that these initiatives are created to allow the industry to sell more drugs. The public needs to be educated about the objectives behind these initiatives so that they can see the benefit in them.
Cynicism about the pharma industry also stems from communications that overstate the benefits of drug and understate the risks. André encouraged the audience to state the facts about their drugs in a realistic and straight-forward manner, particularly when communicating with patients about medications. Patients need a place where they can get credible, reliable information about their medications that is explained to them in a comprehensible manner. André also pointed out that side effects are important to communicate to patients. Patients need to understand that side effects with a medication do not mean that it is a bad drug. Side effects are simply part of the physiological reaction to drugs and patients need to realize this.
André also discussed the concept of a national pharmacare program. He said that every public inquiry about healthcare over the years has been about Canada needing some kind of pharmacare program. With such a program, every Canadian would be covered for the basics, which is currently not the case. Only about 42% of Canadians have a private drug plan, and 6 million Canadians have insufficient or no coverage. André mentioned that the pharma industry does not talk much about developing such program, which he found surprising, since he felt that it would benefit the industry and their patients.
André’s advice for the audience regarding media relations included a few points. He first cautioned them not to expect the media to be trumpeting their products or to do patient education for them. The media is in the information business, which is very different. He did concede that health issues get a lot of media coverage – especially the big killers – but the media also writes about beneficial treatments in these areas. In instances such as these, there are opportunities for these treatments to be portrayed in the media in a good way. He did caution that it would be unlikely for a story to mention only one treatment if there is more than one that works in that area. He gave kudos to pharma public relation departments, as he recognizes that it is a harder area to work in than other industries due to suspicion, mistrust and unrealistic expectations. He congratulated the industry on recognizing that communication is required and said that the pharma industry does it better than other healthcare entities.
In closing, he encouraged the audience to partner with groups like the Heart & Stroke society and patient groups to get positive messages out into the media. André also said that the media and public love human interest stories, which can be impactful just by mentioning a treatment in passing.
The evening ended by having the audience answer the same survey question about media coverage, and it was revealed that André was successful at convincing most of them that the media is not a 4-letter word!